Transformations are a recurrent theme in Mary Zimmerman’s distinguished career as playwright and director. As a writer, she brilliantly adapts stories, myths, and fables for the stage: her Odyssey at McCarter in 2000; Metamorphosis, based on Ovid’s tales, a Tony Award winner on Broadway in 2002; The Secret in the Wings (2005), from an array of European fairy tales and Argonautika (2008), the story of Jason and the Argonauts, both also at McCarter. But even more striking than her clever literary transformations is her wildly creative visual magic in bringing these stories to life on the stage.
The White Snake, based on a classic Chinese fable and currently playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre in a lavish, aesthetically stunning production, embodies that theme of transformation in every facet of its plot and production. Snakes, of course, among other rich symbolic associations, are known for their shape shifting and skin shedding. And certainly a defining characteristic of the theater art itself is its capacity for transformation, as it uses the tools of light, sound, film, props, set, costumes and make-up to transform actors into characters and creatures, and bare stages into multiple worlds.
From the outset, Ms. Zimmerman and her White Snake protagonist are bent on taking the art of transformation to new levels. Originally produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year, The White Snake is the story, whose origins are more than a thousand years old, of a snake who studies the Tao, learns how to fly through the air and travel through the clouds, then how to change her shape into that of a beautiful young maiden. She then wishes to leave her mountain cave and visit the world below, where she meets and falls in love with a mortal man.
The story itself has changed shape many times over the years in numerous tellings and retellings — in oral recounting, in novels, plays, stories, opera, and film. In earlier versions the white snake woman is often depicted as villainous. In one version she and her serpent accomplice slaughter a would-be lover and devour his heart and liver. In most versions a religious figure becomes the antagonist representative of the status quo, exposing the disguised snake woman and imprisoning her under a stone pagoda.
In Ms. Zimmerman’s adaptation, and in most more recent versions of the tale, the White Snake, transformed into Madame White, is a sympathetic figure and the fable becomes a love story. White Snake marries a man named Xu Xian and they must battle the intolerance of a fierce Buddhist monk who is determined to expose Madame White and destroy this relationship between an immortal demon and a mortal man.
As she plots her visit, in the guise of a beautiful lady, to the world of mortals, White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) teams up with Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride), a fiery, outspoken sidekick who provides moral and physical support throughout the proceedings.
Madame White and Greenie meet a young man, Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider), in the park. Madame White uses her supernatural powers to bring on a rain storm so that she and Xu Xian will share an umbrella. Soon afterwards they share their hearts. With Greenie as go-between and procurer of money, Madame White and Xu Xian are soon married and working together in their pharmacy shop.
Their lives are peaceful and happy for a while, and, with Madame White’s supernatural healing powers, the pharmacy thrives, until a visit from Fa Hai (Matt DeCaro), the suspicious monk who has heard about a demon white snake missing from her cave in the mountains and about the astonishingly successful pharmacist, casts doubt in the mind of Xu Xian.
The rest of the story follows Fa Hai’s determined efforts to expose White Snake and break up her forbidden relationship with her husband, as Xu Xian and White Snake struggle to overcome his doubts and her deceptions to achieve a true, lasting, loving relationship.
In staging this tale of transformations and the transforming power of love, Ms. Zimmerman, her actors and her production team present a dazzlingly beautiful tour de force of imaginative performance and stagecraft. Dramatic tension here is a notch below that of Ms. Zimmerman’s earlier masterpieces. This story melds abundant narration with intriguing magic, vibrant characterizations, romantic intrigue, bits of humor and intense conflict, but it lacks the richness of the multiple adventures of Odysseus on his journey home and of Jason and his ill-fated quest. Nor can this fable, captivating though it is, match the variety and allure of Metamorphosis’s amazing, titillating Greek myths or the peculiarly dark and fascinating fairy tales of The Secret in the Wings.
The sheer beauty and ingeniousness of the staging, however, does carry the performance, and if the plot is not always riveting nor the resolution fully satisfying, the audience cannot help but enjoy the visual and auditory feast provided here.
Production elements, under the direction of Ms. Zimmerman, are so closely melded with each other and with the performances of the superb acting ensemble that it’s difficult to single out the artists’ individual contributions, but Ms. Zimmerman’s team of actors, musicians, and designers is thoroughly first-rate.
Starting with the snakes themselves — sometimes manipulated by actors in puppet fashion with two sticks, sometimes represented by a row of actors carrying parasols, sometimes appearing in the form of the two maidens themselves with long tails emerging from their clothes — the visual manifestations of the concrete and abstract elements of the story are striking.
Daniel Ostling’s minimalist set relies on billowing silky fabric and the audience’s imagination to create mountains, clouds, rivers; long strips of blue fabric descending from above to denote rain; a parasol carried by an actor for the moon; a single medicine cabinet with its numerous drawers and large jars on a shelf rising from the floor of the stage to represent the apothecary shop, opening up to become Madame White’s bed chamber; colorful, picturesque model boats pulled across the stage to create the dragon festival; multiple light, sound, film, and design elements to create an epic battle with White Snake and Green Snake calling on all their water spirits to flood the monastery and the mountain and engulf Fai Hai and all his cloud spirits; and a striking display of colorfully costumed actors carrying bright lanterns to celebrate the festival of lanterns.
And even more memorable and clever are the visual and musical/sound manifestations of abstract qualities — like doubt, depicted here by the indispensable Emily Sophia Knapp with her extra-long fingernail attachments attacking poor Xu Xian and drumming relentlessly on his head; or love, when Madame White and Xu Xian’s hands first touch while passing the umbrella and the moment resonates with sound, lighting effects and the excited trembling of the romantic pair; or soon afterwards when red rose petals fall from above, a huge red wedding ribbon descends and the bride and groom entwine themselves in the shimmering sash.
Mara Blumenfeld’s colorful traditional Chinese costumes, T.J. Gerckens richly varied, expressive and dramatic lighting design, Andre Pluess’ remarkable original music and sound design with Tessa Brinckman on flute, Ronnie Malley on strings/percussion and Michal Palzewicz on cello in the orchestra pit, Shawn Sagady’s intriguing projections — all contribute invaluably, vitally to the creation of this exotic world and the telling of this strange tale.
As part of the narration of this story, characters at times read from a 1936 book titled Secrets of the Chinese Drama. In traditional Chinese drama there is no scenery, so costumes, music, props and movement take on particular symbolic meaning. According to the book’s preface, “There is so much of imagination and so little reality. So many of the actions are symbolic and so few of the properties are real!” Among the many wonders displayed on the Matthews stage in this beautiful production of The White Snake, there is little wonder that the infinitely inventive Mary Zimmerman would find a fulfilling vehicle for her rich gifts and powers of transformation in this Chinese tale of transforming snakes and transformative love.